FEMA director tours fire damage, officials say weather cooperated some

WICKES, Mont. - The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency toured fire-blackened Montana landscape Saturday, promising federal aid for local governments strapped by the expense of fighting this summer's wildfires.

A child's bicycle still smoldered in a field as FEMA Director James Lee Witt visited this former mining camp. Flames had swept through the small town earlier in the week, destroying an abandoned post office and other buildings.

Fire officials said they were encouraged by two days of cooler temperatures that allowed crews to make progress against some of the blazes that have made Montana a hot spot of firefighting efforts across the West.

''We're hoping that the situation is past its crisis stage,'' said Jack Kendley, a fire information officer for two major blazes burning south of Helena. ''I think we're in pretty good shape. ... Our biggest danger would be spotting over the fire lines.''

However, meteorologists forecast a return of hot, dry weather.

There were still 69 notable fires burning in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, said the National Fire Information Center in Boise, Idaho. They had charred a total of 923,000 acres, the agency said.

The fire that swept through Wickes, combined with another fire in the area, had burned close to 14,000 acres and forced hundreds of people to evacuate. The two fires were about 85 percent contained Saturday morning and some 900 firefighters remained on the line.

Overall, 19 major fires were active in Montana on Saturday and officials estimated more than 352,000 acres of the state had burned.

State Disaster and Emergency Services Division officials estimated that 2,439 houses were threatened by fires around the state, including more than 1,900 in the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula. The fires that began in late July have destroyed 166 buildings, including more than 50 homes.

Meeting with local volunteer firefighters, Witt said Montana's fires were so bad that FEMA would pay for 100 percent of eligible state and local firefighting costs, with 50 percent now.

''Let's get it done,'' said Sen. Max Baucus. ''We shouldn't have to have the Is dotted and the Ts crossed to get the money that is needed.''

Gov. Marc Racicot said the FEMA money means he won't have to call the Legislature into special session to provide extra funding authority as he had planned.

State, local and federal fighting costs have topped $62 million in Montana and there were 6,154 firefighters at work Saturday.

In the Bitterroot Valley, wind had eased enough to let firefighters protect homes and dig new lines along a number of blazes.

Near the valley town of Pinesdale, where 500 people have been evacuated since last week, five miles of bulldozer line and two miles of hand-dug fire line were in place Saturday around one 8,000-acre fire.

''It's looking good,'' said Carey Jones, a fire information officer.

However, he said officials had no immediate plans to lift the evacuation order and cautioned that the area was not out of danger.

Elsewhere in the West, Nevada's largest fire, about 25 miles southeast of Jackpot in the state's northeastern corner, was 95 percent contained at 39,700 acres. Pack trains of horses were hauling water to crews in remote areas or in the Jarbidge Wilderness where motorized vehicles are forbidden.

Nearly 3,700 firefighters were battling fires in Idaho, roughly half of them on a blaze near the Montana state line that had spread through 127,000 acres and was only 40 percent contained Saturday.

A range fire near Hazelton, Idaho, was contained within only 24 hours after burning 20,000 acres, but it killed 150 cattle.

A firefighter was killed Friday when wind-driven flames swept over a fire truck on the Wind River Reservation near Thermopolis, Wyo. Another firefighter died Aug. 6 when a helicopter crashed battling fires in Nevada. Firefighters from Texas, Arizona, Florida and South Dakota also have died fighting wildfires this year.


On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/news.shtml


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